The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Yale University freshman Caleb Dunson discusses the parallels of being a first year student today and in 1968, when his grandmother was entering college.

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My grandmother turned 18 in September of 1968 — the year when champions of civil rights were assassinated, youth-led protests reached a loud and violent zenith, and America descended into chaos. As she prepared to attend Central Community College in downtown Chicago, her transition to adulthood was marked by the urgency and precarity of social change. 

I turned 18 in September of 2020, and as I trudged through my first semester at Yale University hundreds of miles from home, a pandemic raged across the country, a movement for racial justice galvanized swaths of Americans, and our nation ousted President Donald Trump in an election where democracy hung in the balance. Seeing the similarities in our experiences, I reached out to my grandmother to ask what it means to grow up in a tumultuous time. 

“The same cycles of history repeat themselves,” my grandmother said as she discussed the myriad of anti-war protests she witnessed. “But it was hard not to become cynical because so much was going on. Dr. King was assassinated and so was [Robert F. Kennedy] that year.” 

Her comments reminded me of the despondency I felt as 2020 shook our nation to the core.

I spent most of my year locked in my room at home, missing out on my prom, graduation, and college send off, and watching helplessly as COVID-19 claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and several other Black people reminded me of the inherent fragility of my life as a Black American, leaving me fearful for the safety of myself and my loved ones. To make things worse, the wildfires that raged tinted the sky shades of red and orange on the west coast gave me a brief glimpse into a bleak future where the planet is no longer habitable.

As a Black college student at a prestigious institution like Yale, I feel immense pressure to support my community and to get involved in the social movement that has taken root back home, and I express this to my grandmother all the time. From classmates to coworkers to cousins, people place expectations of exceptionalism on me because of my academic success. And I do feel a need to make the most of the incredible opportunity I have, because there aren’t many Black people who get a chance to move from the streets of Chicago’s West Side to the halls of an institution older than America and richer than dozens of countries. The world, it seems, also demands I use my place at Yale to make positive change, as it faces unprecedented challenges like attempted political coups, environmental degradation, and economic ruin. As someone who resolved at a young age to use my life to make a positive impact on the world, I have tried to embrace that expectation, but I want to just be a kid sometimes, to be young and dumb. I want to be able to enjoy my college experience and make mistakes without the weight of expectations bearing down on me.

My grandmother understands how I feel. She moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1965 at 15 years old, and attended college in 1968 as a first-generation student. Just like me, she had to find her own path amidst a swell of youth activism. As the world erupted around her, she focused on her studies, knowing that engaging in the movement meant putting her life at risk and jeopardizing the sacrifices both she and her family made so that she could get an education. Instead of joining the movement in the streets, my grandmother found herself in long conversations with her friends discussing, as she puts it, “who was right and who was wrong” and reflecting on what it meant to be living through that time. Today, I’m having these same conversations with my suitemates. We discuss whether or not our world is collapsing and wonder what stories we’ll tell our grandchildren about living through 2020.

In embracing the expectations of impact, my fight for justice has come to look much different than that of my peers who are activists and community organizers. They have worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice and progress: pulling together public health resources for disadvantaged communities through mutual aid, leading climate change demonstrations and lobbying efforts, and organizing protest after protest, working with organizations like GoodKids MadCity this past summer, even as the fervor of the racial justice movement died down. 

I remain in the academic space as I pursue change by majoring in political science, joining civics-based extracurricular organizations, and writing political commentaries for news organizations Blavity, the Yale Daily News, iCivics and Chicago Votes. But I still feel disconnected from the movement of a lifetime happening right outside my university’s walls. My eyes glaze over while reading Rawls, Mill, and Rousseau’s theories on liberalism, and as I discuss how to support privileged Yalies as a member of our student government body — by advocating for inconsequential changes to course schedules and dining hall menus — I can’t help but think of my Austin neighborhood that has been aching for decades. I yearn to be a part of the movement, to get my hands dirty, to spend my hours in the streets helping people, but time and space will not allow it. 

Balancing the demands of my university with the demands of my community is a close to impossible task. By the time I have finished working on Computer Science problem sets that take upwards of 12 hours, struggling through dozens of Calculus problems, completing hundreds of pages of reading, and catching up on seemingly endless prerecorded Economics lectures, I have neither the time nor the energy to be civically engaged. By engaging in activism outside of my school, I also place my academic success at risk and threaten the future impact I can make with my college degree. What will happen to my academic standing if I get arrested at a protest? Will I still have enough time to do the work necessary to pass my classes if I’m volunteering with local community organizations? 

Now 70 years old and living down the block from my Chicago home in the Austin neighborhood, my grandmother tells me, “You can do both, you just have to learn how to manage your time. Right now your writing is your activism, focus on that.” She speaks with the wisdom of a woman that has seen the best and worst of our country, a woman who has learned to find a balance between personal responsibility and responsibility to her community. 

Still, what I do does not feel like enough. But for now, I guess it will have to be.

is a writer and first year student at Yale University.